Carter Woodson: The Man Whose Work Inspired Black History Month

In 1926, Carter Woodson inaugurated a 'Negro History Week' in February. The practice caught on around the country, changing the way Americans view history.

Everyone says he supports education. No one claims to be a champion of ignorance. After those generalities, however, the disagreements begin.

What should be taught and who should teach it? In which settings is learning most conducive—the home, the classroom, private or public? Should parents be involved or shut out? What perspectives in various subject areas should students know about, and which ones aren’t worth mentioning? Do we teach them what to think or how to think? Is it best to homogenize a nation’s educational institutions or would we be a better and smarter people if we encouraged diversity and experimentation?

The issues and the controversies are endless. Even truth and accuracy are not “settled” matters.

Allow me to share the following remark from a man who certainly appreciated the value of a good education. Do you agree with it?

When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his 'proper place' and will stay in it. The mere imparting of information is not education. 

The person who wrote those words decades ago was a black man named Carter G. Woodson. The son of freed slaves, he was born in Virginia in 1875 and worked as a young man in the coal mines of West Virginia. From those profoundly humble beginnings, he went on to earn an undergraduate degree from Berea College, followed by graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and Harvard University. He died in 1950, the first child of slave parents to earn a PhD—which in his case was in history from Harvard. For most of his academic career, he taught at Howard University in Washington, DC but prior to that he taught high school in West Virginia and supervised a school in the Philippines.

Carter G. Woodson knew education backwards and forwards. His love of history, and his scholarship on its behalf, are legendary. Known as “the father of black history,” he skillfully deployed modern public-relations methods in the first half of the 20th Century to stimulate popular interest in the experiences of black Americans. His remarkable story is brilliantly told in a 2017 book by Burnis R. Morris, Carter G. Woodson: History, the Black Press, and Public Relations. I strongly recommend it.

Woodson did not view his students as empty heads he had to pour something into. He wanted them to think for themselves, just as he always did. To do otherwise is to perpetuate a form of slavery, he believed. To him, education was more about spurring young people to seek truth and enjoy the seeking. He disdained indoctrination, groupthink, and mindless regurgitation of any academic’s political agenda. He was a true and devoted educator.

Reading the Morris biography of Woodson, I developed a hunger for the words of the great man himself. In 1919, he published a fascinating work titled The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861. The title immediately intrigued me because as a historian myself, I knew that educating blacks before the Civil War was hardly a priority in most of the country, indeed, it was illegal in many southern states.

Woodson reveals a story much like his own—of hard work, risk, and perseverance despite obstacles. His Chapter IX, “Learning in Spite of Opposition,” drove home to me how powerful and innate is the desire to teach and to learn, even among people who are told what to think and not much more—and even where educating them constitutes law-breaking civil disobedience. Woodson notes that there was a great deal of “winking at the violation of the reactionary laws” against educating blacks:

The ways in which slaves acquired knowledge are significant. Many picked it up here and there, some followed occupations which were in themselves enlightening, and others learned from slaves whose attainments were unknown to their masters. Often, influential white men taught Negroes not only for the rudiments of education but almost anything they wanted to learn. Not a few slaves were instructed by the white children whom they accompanied to school. While attending ministers and officials whose work often lay open to their servants, many of the race learned by contact and observation. Shrewd Negroes sometimes slipped stealthily into back streets, where they studied under a private teacher, or attended a school hidden from the zealous execution of the law.

Underground, illegal schools in states that forbade the education of blacks before the Civil War were more common than most Americans today would imagine. According to Woodson:

In many southern communities colored schools were maintained in defiance of public opinion or in violation of the law…More schools for slaves existed than white men knew of, for it was difficult to find them…The more interesting of these cases was discovered by the Union Army on its march through Georgia. Unsuspected by the slave power and undeterred by the terrors of the law, a colored woman by the name of Deveaux had for thirty years conducted a Negro school in the city of Savannah.

February is celebrated as Black History Month. Since 1970, time has been set aside in classrooms in February for discussions of eminent black Americans. It is a largely forgotten fact that if anybody could be rightfully designated as the father of Black History Month, it would indisputably be Carter G. Woodson. In 1926, he inaugurated a “Negro History Week” in February, which caught on around the country and ultimately expanded to the whole month. He wanted history taught in a way that left nobody out because of his color.

Woodson did not promote black history to stoke racial division. He wanted to fill a void by focusing on a topic long ignored in American education. He did not believe in segregating history by race, but rather, he dreamed of seamlessly incorporating the relevant history of all peoples into a unified discipline. In his biography, Burnis R. Morris recounts that at a convention once, the late and respected historian John Hope Franklin “heard Woodson say he looked forward to the time when it would not be necessary to set aside a week for the observance of black history.”

Out of deference to Woodson’s wishes to hurry up that time, Franklin said he accepted invitations to speak only during the other eleven months of the year. “This has been my one-man crusade to hasten the realization of Woodson’s dream,” he said.

Before this month is out, and in the years to come, we should remember the educator who inspired Black History Month. Even more important, blacks and whites should work for the day when, as Woodson wished, we will no longer need one.

For Additional Information, See:

Carter G. Woodson: History, the Black Press, and Public Relations by Burnis R. Morris

The Myth that Americans were Poorly Educated Before Mass Government Schooling by Lawrence W. Reed

Education in Colonial America by Robert A. Peterson

The Carter G. Woodson Home, National Park Service

Carter G. Woodson: African American Trailblazer (video)

Black Excellist: Ten Things About Dr. Carter G. Woodson (video)

Black History is Our History (video)

More by Lawrence W. Reed